A new church start in New England gathers around a dinner table instead of rows of pews. And I wonder if this is a portent of the future of church.
A Simple Church outside of Boston
Zach Kerzee is the pastor of a new church start without a steeple or a worship space: Simple Church (FB) which sees church as a big family dinner. Zach is a United Methodist and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, which is a distant second to my alma mater of Boston University School of Theology across the river, but let’s not hold that against him.
After Zach had this idea for a novel use of a neglected church parsonage, he heard about St. Lydia’s dinner church in New York City and studied their process to inform his model of church: a simple church that meets for dinner.
After reading more about Zach’s work, I’m really entranced by two aspects of Simple Church.
First, I’m inspired by Zach’s living out of his convictions by making his own life simple. In a profile in the local paper, he really walks the walk: he has sold most of his possessions and lives simply (almost a new monastic, perhaps). Can this church bring an aspect of monasticism to the masses? I don’t know, but a dinner table is a good place to start.
Second, I’m stoked about the participatory aspects of the worship service:
Worship [entails] preparing the food together within a liturgical context full of prayers, a candle-lighting ceremony, and a blessing of the food, followed by the meal and a short sermon meant to start discussion. There will of course be music, but not traditional hymns…[afterward] there will be time for the kids to come and play while the grownups gather for coffee.
I think so often we expect church to be a product that we consume and enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors (writing liturgy, practicing the choral anthem, etc). Instead, worship that involves everyone pitching in–be it cooking, prepping, cleaning, setting the table, or just watching the kids–brings a deeper co-creative aspect to worship. Wow.
Simple Church has an official launch on September 18th. If you are in the Grafton, Massachusetts area, stop on by and let us know how it went.
Why Dinner Matters
Dinner matters because food may be one of the holy moments that reaches across all the lines that usually divide us.
I recently went to a conference and sat next to Sarah Harmeyer who runs My Neighbor’s Table in Dallas, Texas. Sarah has a 20-seat dinner table in her backyard (literally, of her house) where she regularly hosts people to eat–at last count, I think she has had over 1,000 guests. That’s at a dinner table in a backyard, not a restaurant!
Two things jumped out at me from Sarah’s secular project (or at least it’s not overtly faith-oriented). First was the reaction from some guests at one dinner:
Sarah, who is the founder of Neighbor’s Table, went around the room and introduced everyone. I was so impressed! She remembered pretty much everyone’s name and was able to tell a brief story about each of us. She said a blessing over the food and we all got to dig in and eat.
Second is from when she hosted a dinner party for a cookbook kickstarter and here’s what the author said about the experience:
The love I received that night is not something that can be easily forgotten. It not only confirmed my belief that gathering people to connect around the table is vitally important, but it has challenged me to love extraordinarily. To not worry so much about what I say or what I accomplish, but how I make others feel. That’s what matters.
Identity, belonging, and transformation–these people received from a dinner table what I hope they receive at a worship service in a church with pews.
Taking on Post-Christendom
Last in our brief survey is Rev. Tom Arthur, pastor of Sycamore Creek Church just outside of Lansing, Michigan. Since October 2012, SCC added a second site to his appointment called “Church in a Diner” where they…have church in a diner. Check out this video:
It looks just like a typical weeknight at a diner, though with a walking sermon, music, and people packing out a place for something other than dollar tacos. And even better is how the pastor frames this taking of church out of the designated building and into the community:
“We live in a post-Christian culture where Sunday morning is not reserved for church. The question is: are we going to adapt to it, or are we going to stay stuck complaining about football and soccer games, dance rehearsals being scheduled on Sunday mornings? Are we going to go to those places where people are already gathering?”
SCC is a very different model than Simple Church because it transplants the traditional church experience into a new wineskin, rather than distilling the worship experience down to its bare essentials.
However, I admire that instead of whining over the loss of Sunday morning sacrosanctness, the church chose to change along with culture and go where the people are. When you are wandering in the wilderness, it’s best to follow the pillar of God’s fire, rather than watch it grow dim as it moves away from you.
The Future is Big…or Small.
I believe the future of church will leave the middle and creep towards the extremes: the megachurches that offer everything to everyone, and the microchurches that offer deeper community and personal relationships (which will compete with megachurches that are multisite…that’s interesting). Our clergy will feel a pull towards one of those extremes.
As we learn the best practices from the megachurches, we would do well to also support and study these smaller communities who are refining the basics of community and conversation that leads to transformation. The Church had its start in an upper room where Jesus shared bread and cup with his friends who he knew by name: maybe there’s something there for us to remember and bring back to our consumeristic world.
- What are your thoughts on dinner churches or faith expressions that are primarily found in the sharing of a meal?
- What other dinner churches are in your area that you want to make note of? Have you attended and what was your experience?
Thanks for your comments!
Dinner church is our signature worship experience. Starting Sep. 21 we will meet 1st & 3rd Sundays in St Johns.
We have interest to meet the other weekends in SW Portland and on the east side.
I think it’s good that many folks are thinking of various ways to involve the laity within the worship experience. That’s originally the point. Actually, that’s why the Catholic Mass used to have the priest face away from the congregation. The priest was simply a “leader” in the worship service of the Mass where everyone participated in the worship.
Nowadays, I fell like it’s pulling teeth just finding someone to do the readings. Too many folks in the pews seem to think that the service is something put on for their sake, rather than something we all do together for God.
Also, I’d love to live as simply as Zach. But… my books! (That’s pretty much it, actually.)
I have a sudden urge to watch Babbette’s Feast again tonight.
Awesome! Had not thought of that movie in years! And it so fits the idea of Dinner Church!
I’m in conversation with some of my folks in Madison, WI around dinner church and possibly launching a new dinner church service at our more traditional UMC in October.
Did this ever get off the ground in Madison? I’m doing research on mission starts there.
In March 2011, we formed a new church called Joining Hands Mission Church in Holiday, Fl. We start the morning by offering free breakfast to the public. We encourage families, seniors and the homeless population to join us. The breakfast is served in a large room and is restaurant style. At 10am we remove a few tables set up chairs and start church service. This model has been very successful for reaching out to the un-churched. By March of 2014, we served our 10,000th meal and average 125-150 for church service every Sunday. Our biggest blessing has been the number of children that come for Sunday school and youth group. Food works miracles.
We did “dinner church” with the Deaf faith community in IL all the time; we just didn’t CALL it that. It seemed like a natural extension/ combination of the traditional Methodist “potluck” and the desire for Deaf folks to get together. If we offered a free meal, Deaf people would come and you could offer prayer time, worship, signed music, a program, basically anything, alongside it and people liked it. So we did “dinner church” a lot! I have to say this was one of our most successful activities usually.
This. Deaf Church and a meal go together as logical extensions. Christ UMC of the Deaf in Baltimore has lunch after worship every Sunday and it’s every bit a part of the service as the worship service is in many ways. It’s also part of the reason Cambridge Welcoming Ministries of yesteryear was so ‘familiar’ to me when we were both there, Jeremy.
Everyone has to eat. I think it puts them in a good and receptive mood. A fresh and novel approach.
At Broadway UMC in Indianapolis we have been building a lot of our life together around meals – both inside and outside. We are located in a low income neighborhood. We hire young people from the neighborhood (some who are members of the church) in the summer to visit their neighbors and to do three things: 1) name the gifts, talents, dreams and passions they see in the lives of their neighbors; 2) lay hands on them and bless them; and 3) connect them with other people who care about the same thing. So they pull together meals – in people’s homes – who care about the same thing (and who live in the neighborhood and who don’t live in the neighborhood), who have the same gift, who have a similar passion. Also, we tell our youth pastor – if he starts a youth group he’s fired. Instead, he gathers a meal for each young person in the parish…usually in their home, but can be in the home of a family friend – the young person invites people, and our youth pastor invites some folks – the family is of course there. After the meal everyone goes around the room and tells the young person what they see in that young person’s life: how the Holy Spirit is active in their gifts and interests. Then the young person talks about what they feel their calling in their life is…then people go aorund the room and say what they are willing to offer to the building of that gift…then the young person comes to the middle of the room and everyone lays hands on them and prays for them. Also, as the clergy here at the church we have “gamified” our work somewhat. If you pull together a meal of people who wouldn’t have eaten together otherwise – 5 points. If at a meal with folks in the parish you remind people of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples and his practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners – one point. That type of thing. We have an awfully good time with this…
Great stuff. Building and serving community and/or God’s kingdom around table fellowship is one of the pillars of our new Fresh Expression (Inspire) in Chemnitz, Germany. Thanks for some neat ideas.
I just posted this on my blog about a meal that turned into a worship service. Am planning to start a ministry like this in Denton. http://christythomas.com/2014/09/10/california-mystery-worship-six-the-roundtable-church/
Hi Christy… I’m a new pastor within the United methodist tradition.
I have found myself at a place where I am fully aware of the need to do things differently for the sake of those who have not yet arrived as a born again Christian. I came upon this idea of “dinner church” from a book titled “Weird Church” by Beth Ann Estock & Paul Nixon. The idea intrigued me. I have attempted to transition our church Wednesday evening meal and then Bible study into a discussion centered around the meal itself. (When I arrived at this current appointment, I found that we would get maybe 30 or so attend the meal and then only 5 or 6 would stay for the study.) Instantly, we found ourselves with 12-18 in attendance with more than half being 14-17 year olds who were there because it was likely their best meal of the week. I have talked with the regular members who would show up, expressing to them my desire to focus on the kids… So, that’s where we are headed.. having “dinner church” with the “unchurched”!
We have been planning an interfaith Dinner Church at our church, Friendship Presbyterian Church in Norwood Park in Chicago. Our first one is September 24th and we are pretty excited about it! We also do two God Talk on Tap events each month. The topics at God Talk have been great conversation starters, so we are looking forward to what comes with Dinner Church.
I believe the Word of God can be received in any place people are gathered for learning and worshiping God. Jesus did not preach in a snygogue or church, but to those who gathered to listen and learn about God. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, preached outdoors and people gathered to listen and learn. God is every where so our priests, preachers, church leaders are finding themselves in diners, pubs, gardens etc. Praise God!
We, as the Christian believer, also need to be encouraged to invite others to join in on the feast of God’s word. It is not up to the pastors or priests alone to spread the Word.
Great article! We are committed to helping any Jesus follower explore “simple church” where they live. If we can help encourage you let us know!
The “we” is the Simple Church Alliance… http://www.simplechurchalliance.com
Love the freshness of the table at the center of it all. Our house church network (NEO House Church Network) of about ten simple churches often revolve around a meal and the Lord’s Supper….and of course a participatory meeting based on 1 Cor 14:26